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Jonathan Bernstein

California’s Recall Election Is a Terrible Mess

Even if you think Gavin Newsom has done a bad job, this is no way to choose a governor.

Not worth it.

Not worth it.

Photographer: Chris Delmas/AFP

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Oy, recalls.

Californians are beginning to vote in an election to recall their governor, Gavin Newsom. Despite the state’s large Democratic majority, it’s very possible that Newsom will be removed, just as Gray Davis was in 2003. 

I haven’t lived in California for years, and I have no particular view on whether Newsom has done a good job in office. I do have a strong view, however, on the process: It’s garbage. 

To begin with, the election is structured badly. Californians are first asked whether to retain or remove Newsom, and then are given a plurality ballot of candidates to replace him, which only matters if the incumbent is in fact removed. Single-shot plurality elections with no party nominations are just a mess, and tend toward large candidate fields and almost random results; name recognition and factional candidacies are rewarded at the expense of almost everything else. Whatever the merits of recalls, this is simply a terrible way to replace a removed governor, as political scientist David Karol points out:

The best option, however, would be to get rid of the recall altogether, along with its Progressive Era cousins, the initiative and the referendum. All of them are purported to be methods for getting around organized interests and political parties and thereby returning power to voters. That’s bunk. For one thing, voters are only strong in groups. Tear them away from organized groups, and they retain only the illusion of influence. 

More important, the truth is that, like it or not, direct democracy isn’t a very strong form of democracy at all, at least in large polities. It offers only the illusion of control, as opposed to a representative system in which those who do the governing are responsible to the electorate. Direct democracy leaves voters hostage to what’s on the ballot, which means that the groups that choose what’s on the ballot — when recall elections are held, who’s being recalled, which initiatives are sponsored, how they’re drafted and so on — gain influence. Politicians have plenty of incentives to listen to their constituents. The groups that control the ballot, by contrast, need only listen to themselves. They might be permeable political parties that allow citizen participation, or they might be closed parties or narrower groups whose only concern is to advance their own interests. Of course, interest groups are an important part of any democratic system, but legislatures and other representative institutions force them to form coalitions, and, ultimately, to think beyond themselves. Direct democracy efforts such as recalls and initiatives encourage narrow groups to stay narrow and to try to manipulate enough voters to get their way. 

And that’s not the only problem. Recalls, initiatives and referendums all ask a lot of voters. They’re additional items on the ballot, or — as with the California recall — require additional visits to the polls. What’s more, they tend to remove useful short-cuts such as party identification. The result is that voters are asked to do more and given less useful information to do it. 

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